Saturday, 16 December 2017

RITA, SUE AND BOB TOO

I think it was probably a pretty difficult decision for the Royal Court to pull its January run of the revival of Andrea Dunbar’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too. 

I imagine it was also a very difficult decision to un-cancel it in light of widespread accusations that they were censoring the playwright, an iconic working class writer who burned bright and died young etc. 

This is obviously all pure conjecture, but I would further guess that the fact Court AD Vicky Featherstone ultimately changed her mind is reflective of the fact she had struggled with the decision in the first place. I certainly don’t get the impression that the reinstatement has been made through gritted teeth, or that the backlash has been comparable to that against, say, the Tricycle’s decision to back out of the Jewish Film Festival.

So I’m a bit depressed by the polarised tone of many of the reactions to it, that a decision probably agonised over has been turned into some sort of Biblically stark scenario.

My hilariously convoluted personal view is that there were sound reasons for cancelling it - which seem to be the ones most people on side seem to be assuming the Court cancelled it for - but that the Court’s actual stated reasons were pretty questionable. 

The press release announcing the cancellation said very little about Max Stafford-Clark, but instead suggested that the themes of the play made it inappropriate to stage in the light of the Court’s admirable recent work in addressing abuse in the industry. 

A lot of ‘theatre people’ are aware that the play has a history bound up with the recently-outed-as-an-abuser etc Stafford-Clark, that he was originally scheduled to direct this revival, and that the Royal Court is a new writing theatre that hardly ever plays host to revivals and that Stafford-Clark - who directed Rita, Sue and Bob Too’s premiere at the Court in 1982 - was essentially the reason the revival was calling in. I think those are all pretty sound reasons to reject the production, a touring show from Out of Joint, the company MSC recently left in disgrace. 

However, none of them were publicly stated as reasons for its cancellation and I’m not sure much of this is widely known outside a fairly narrow circle of industry figures/theatre buffs. So I’m not very surprised that a large number of people not in the industry have taken the Court’s statement – which I think was clumsy at best – at face value, believing that the principle reason for taking Rita, Sue and Bob Too off is that the themes in it are not appropriate for staging (at this time, sure, but when would they ever be?) And it’s not much of a leap to then start fretting about the irony of ‘censoring’ the blameless Dunbar – one of the most iconic working class playwrights of the '80s – in the name of young women who’d been abused.

Were the Court's reasons for taking it off actually the ones stated? If I had to guess I'd say no. I imagine it’s legally difficult to say much more about Stafford-Clark without opening yourself to possible legal action, given he’s not been charged with anything and the public accusations against him are thus far both recent and limited. In fact I don't think I’ve seen one person defending the decision on the grounds of the wording of the decision, but on a subtext that they assume to be there. But it may not be, and it’s certainly not going to be apparent to people like, say, Hadley Freeman or Gloria de Piero who have expressed their upset at the ban. It has been suggested to me that I’m being pedantic over the wording of a press release, or that the real reasons go without saying. I really don’t think so - your public statement is your public statement. Words matter. You're communicating to the world, not a clique. 

Clearly there are some absolute free speech bore dickheads who’ve waded in unhelpfully, without meaning well. And I feel uncomfortable about older male figures of the MSC vintage giving anyone any lectures about anything. But a lot of the people who work in theatre or write about theatre who wanted the play reinstated had earnest and heartfelt reasons for it and the way I’ve seen some of them spoken about on Twitter is almost is if they’re traitors to some sort of grand cause that the cancellation of Rita, Sue and Bob Too was furthering. As it is, I don’t even think there had been any sort of meaningful motion to ban the play prior to the Court doing so itself. (Which is not to say that it hadn’t been viewed as problematic, but perhaps it had been given a pass specifically because of the good work the Court has been doing lately).

Anyway - the Court has stated there should be no grey areas in terms of professional and personal relationships. But other grey areas will always exist. Rita, Sue and Bob Too exists in a grey area because there are legitimate reasons for taking it off and legitimate reasons for keeping it on. In the end I get the feeling that Featherstone’s decision was swayed by the fact that the Court is a writer’s theatre first, and perhaps the indignation for Dunbar's sake offered her a default route to take that aligned with her theatre's mission. All I can really say is that I don’t think any of this is a sign of weak leadership, just hard decisions. Agonising over something difficult is perfectly normal. Suggesting Vicky Featherstone has been bullied into providing a platform for Max Stafford-Clark is reductive at best, cobblers at worse. 

The fact that the play can only be either off or in doesn’t mean either state is perfect.

I imagine there’s is a certain awareness that the route that would have caused the least fuss would have been not doing anything and hoping the run went off with minimal comment.

I imagine there will be a lot of people very relieved when the run is over.

Personally, I think the best outcome now is that the discourse around it can go some way to pry the play from the shadows of its past. People would like Dunbar's reputation to survive her director's. So I guess if the show is now happening, let's go into it with that frame of mind.

Monday, 23 October 2017

HE IS SIR NICHOLAS HYTNER

I interviewed Nick Hytner for the first time the other day, and I thought it turned out rather well, and I could barely really scratch the surface with what I could get into the Time Out article, so here we go, a lot of stuff on British theatre, the Bridge, An Octoroon, some rather vague answers on diversity, and THE SVERM QUESTION – uncut. It's pretty much a transcript though tidied up a bit. Anyway, enjoy, obviously I slightly regret not getting him to slag off Gove now but it's quite a good theatre geek chat, I hope.




Did you leave the National to start the Bridge, or was it just a case of needing to find something to do once you’d left? 
Well we knew we’d leave the National, Nick Starr and me, and we both wanted to go on making theatre and I wanted to go on directing theatre and the idea came from Nick initially - we didn’t particularly fancy going off to the West End and joining the long queue of producers trying to get hold of theatres for a season and I’m not sure that seasonal thing quite makes sense, there aren’t that many theatre in the West End that you actually really wanna be in. But also we neither of us have a particular history in the West End, neither of us are particularly attached to the West End as an institution and we start thinking how would it be if we built our own. 

There are sound commercial imperatives behind it, 25 percent more tickets are sold now than there were ten years ago – that’s levelled off but it’s not declining, there’s certainly enough ticket buyers there. 

Is it hard to build a new theatre? 
We looked at all sorts of way of doing it – the particular site we’re at was a stroke of good luck, Nick had already left, we d started talking to property developers and we’d realised that if you were talking to developers building big, multi-purpose developments, when you explain to them what a theatre audience attracted to their site might do for their development as a whole then we were finding people pretty receptive. Some recent London property developments, quite a lot of them come with planning permission that insist on a degree of culture but it’s usually small stuff not sustainable without subsidy or philanthropy of some kind, quite often they just disappear down the plug hole. And I think quite a lot of the local authorities are aware of that. So here, by good fortune, is something already built with 50,000 square feet a big, huge kind of concrete void with a Section 108 from Southwark Council, looking for a tenant because they had one but it fell through. 

So they were just looking for a cultural 'thing’? 
They were looking for a cultural 'thing’ but they had no idea what it was going to be and so two-and-a-half years ago we started a process of bidding. There were some rival bids, galleries, that kind of thing, but we persuaded them that ours was the best. And so that’s what it is. It’s flats, it’s expensive flats and restaurants all that kind of stuff, which happened to have a huge aircraft hangar-sized void in the bottom and a lovely riverside frontage. 

Did you actually know what you were doing?
By good fortune or maybe because we kind of rumbled how this was going to work if this was going to work we’d been working already with Steve Tompkins on something which in concept can be more or less any size but the shorthand is it’s a prefabricated theatre, it’s a theatre Steven has designed with an American company who do all the big stadium rock gigs, that’s who they are. The brilliant things about that is they’re developing all the things you need to put on a huge tour at very short notice – apparently those tours, if Taylor Swift wants to tour she decides quite soon before they start and they pull together an enormous show and it has to go up like that and come down like that and go on to the next city, they go up in three days. And they started to think, what if you had a proper theatre that could go up in not days, but months, which you could kind of then replicate that came in a kind of kit, so we’d already been working on that, knowing that all we were looking for was a void to put it in. 

Relatively speaking has it been quite a quick process? 
I think it probably has happened very quickly - it could now happen again relatively quickly if the space was available for it. And I think we will now be now – not necessarily looking to do it at the same scale, but maybe do it at a bigger scale as other opportunities arise. Because all other things aside, why should commercial theatre of good quality be limited to a few old theatres in the West End? It’s totally flexible, this space can do anything, that is how people write and direct and create shows these days, and you can’t do that in even the most beautiful West End theatres. And there’s all the stuff we’ve already talked about, all the ladies’ loos, all that stuff. 

And I take it you don’t view the commercial and subsidised sector as different worlds? 
They’re demonstrable not. I think if you went to Paris they would be - even the actors don't move from one to another. But here they do and if you look at the most successful West End shows, they’ve either come from and most of the plays - almost all of the plays have come from the subsidised sector, they’re totally mutually interdependent.  

Hardly any new writing goes directly into the commercial sector – why? And why do you think you can change it?
It's a mystery. It’s not that much of a mystery. I’m just about old enough to remember when playwrights like Joe Orton, Michael Frayn, Alan Bennett, even occasionally Harold Pinter were writing for the West End. That all stopped because they all migrated to the subsidised theatres. Why not try again? 

I read in your book (Balancing Acts) that The Lady in the Van only went to the West End because Maggie Smith hates the Lyttelton…
She doesn't like the Lyttelton. And also that’s the theatre she comes from, she started off in Revue in the West End. 

Is the Bridge basically just a fancier version of the Lyttelton?
Well actually it’s a bigger capacity than the Lyttelton… I don't want to be rude about the Lyttelton because I love the Lyttelton – I particularly love the Olivier, I love them both – but honestly if you were designing them now, you’d put those seats in a smaller volume of space. They only problem with the Olivier is it’s 1150 seats and it looks like it’s more. So what we’re trying to do now is partly a consequence of better engineering. Nick Starr is fond of saying that theatre engineering has not really advanced since the invention of the cantilever. But yeah it is, it’s 900 comfortable seats, the long thrust is a probably a bit less, the promenade probably a bit more, but it won’t feel as big as the Lyttelton. It’s not like you need that number of seats to make money; you need that number of seats to do plays that have big costs - we could perfectly happily run a smaller theatre but you wouldn't be able to put on Young Marx. Nightfall, Barney Norris's play, is a four-hander you don't need a 900-seat theatre to put that one, but we love it. 

So is it a West End theatre or isn't it?
Well here’s another difference – commercial produces in the West End, they're a pretty determined, strong-willed and heroic bunch, because they’ve first got to join the queue for the good theatres, then they've got to join what is in effect a seller's market, the landlords have so many people hustling for their theatres they can take turns. But also they have to show a profit every single show. We don’t. Because we have raised the money we needed to build the theatre and put on the first tranche of show upfront and as long as we now continue to operate a small surplus we’ll be okay. If we choose we can cover modest successful and even modestly unsuccessful shows with more successful ones, we don’t need to return money to our investors, we’re in a different game really. 

Is it easier than running the National?
It’s differently stressful. Actually for me it has been less work, Nick has very much driven the building of the theatre, but I am now about to start doing rather more work. 

Where are you finding these plays? Did you take anything from the National? Do you have a literary department?
Nothing from the National. It’s basically me and Nick mucks in and David Sabel mucks in and Will Mortimer from Hampstead work for us one day every fortnight. So it's basically writers that I know or writers that I admire. It’s not to the same degree as it was at at the national, but then there are fewer people to programme. Almost everything we commissions will be staged. We’re not reading everything, we can’t do that and we don't particularly want to, we don't have the capacity. And also it’s a very particular thing we’re asking for, it's stuff that has the muscle. We’ve said eight of them and there are more that didn’t feel comfortable that they were in a place to be talked about. 

I read you have a new Branden Jacob-Jenkins play… 
Where did you hear that? 

He said it himself in an interview with Exeunt
Well there is, that's good. I saw An Octoroon two-and-a-half years ago. That was one of the very few times I felt frustrated not being at the National so I could bring it over. That was a dazzling production as much as anything else. It was by Sarah Benson the director of Soho Rep who is English and Branden told me that one of the reasons she was in New York is that she felt there was no place for her in the London theatre and honestly my blood went cold and I thought, ‘is this my fault?’. Luckily when I met her it turned out she moved to New York in 2001 so I’m not responsible at all. So yeah Brandon came in as soon as we started thinking about this really. So these are people who like Richard Bean I have a long relationship with or Sam Holcroft was one of my absolute favourites from the National. But they will all go on writing for the National. They all get it, it’s a really interesting thing that's happened to dramatists, compared to when I came in – they have such various careers, they write for the movies, for long-form TV, Sam is about to run a writers room with her partner – it’s completely brilliant. If you're a dramatist you can pick up the form you want to write. 

You don't have the Arts Council breathing down your neck anymore but you were quite pointed about letting people know there was gender parity in your commissions – is diversity important to you now that you're under no real obligations to it?
Well you want to because it’s good. The great thing is that I don't have to make speeches about it, I don’t need to make a song and dance. Diversity will just happen because it just happening is plainly on all levels a good thing. It’s good because it’s appealing, attractive inclusive, exciting, because any sentient people would want to. It’s an art-form which is by nature by definition exclusive, it happens for a few hundred people a night, we’re constantly struggling about that, so obviously. But I don't have to make speeches about it. 

If there’s a new Alan Bennett play, do you expect it’ll be staged here? 
Yeah [laughs] 

Why Young Marx as the opening play?
Well listen, it was partly because it's what was ready. Richard writes very quickly – if people had sat in the corner of the National Theatre green room and taken money on what we’d open with, they’d probably have said 'a Richard Bean play'. And also Rory - it felt like a great collection of people to get together. I’m not whatever age I am – over 60! – it’s not like I’m going to be – I hope I reinvent the wheel as far as how I approach shows all the time, you fear as a director falling back on old tricks, but as far as feeling confident about the people I’m working with is concerned I’ve got no problem with that. If you’re going to make a play about the vast and often funny bap between flesh and blood and icon you couldn't do better than go to Marx. It’s a play that’s the most absurd whenever it’s the most true. He lived a brilliantly absurd life, gloriously self-centred and uncompromising and chaotic. He was emotionally illiterate the way great geniuses often are, but he was obviously also must have been infinitely forgivable because people stuck with him throughout his life. It's one of those ones where you don't want to say what the plot is because it'll make people’s eyes pop out. You want a red exclamation mark to come on every time you thought the writer was dicking with you. It’s an appealing play. 

Is what's been announced so far the basic deal with your programming: new writing with the odd bit of Shakespeare?
I think so - maybe occasionally not Shakespeare. You've obviously read the book but I take a bit of a potshot at the thing called new writing, but I take a bit of a potshot at new writing, but I love great new plays. I don't want anybody to think that the policy of this theatre is new writing because it’s virtuous to be committed to new writing. The great thing about theatre is that it doesn’t want to just be entertaining and it doesn’t want to be just challenging, it wants to be both. The movie audience I think maybe want to be entertained - the theatre audience is paying enough to want more than that – I think the best way to do that is to put on great new plays, the biggest hits were always new things. Well-cast Shakespeare would do just fine, but the stuff that really reached out beyond people who usually go to the National was stuff that’s new. So that’s what I love doing at the moment and I also love doing Shakespeare. And Julius Caesar - I'm not the only person to think of doing that at the moment – I've been doing theatre long enough to know that that happens. 

Is it a risk to put on a smaller show like Nightfall? 
Yeah, sure, but we’re doing it for six weeks, seven weeks rather than three months. I’ll tell you the other thing we’re doing here, we’re rightly proud of this theatre, rightly or wrongly, and we’re giving you end on, promenade, and Nightfall is on the long thrust which is why I’m confident you can do a quiet intimate play. 

Are the five other plays officially announced the five next plays on? 
I would have thought that those plays will take two or three years to arrive. There are other plays which we didn't announce and we probably will do first. I think we’ll just put a couple of shows on later in the autumn because they're ready to be put on sale. I have no state of the nation statement to make, there won't be themed seasons. I think we’d like to release ourselves from all that; we’re going to be here a long time. Unless we go belly up, That would be a spectacular failure! [laughs weirdly heartily]

Do you see this as, you know, your last job?
You will find that as the years pass it never occurs to you that you're not 30, you don’t find yourself thinking – you don't find yourself thinking ‘oh, I’ll do this and stop’ – I’m sure everybody thinks ‘I never expected to be this age’. 

But you're in this for the long term, yes?
Well you know, it’s ours. It’s a business, it’s a start-up, it’s Dragons’s Den, there's money invested in this business and at some point we will have to find a way – but not for several years, we’ll have to find way to make sure the people who invested in us do okay but we get to decide to do whatever it is that we want to do. But yeah it belongs to us and our investors, we’re kind of able to do what we like.  Should it be on the list theatre that the theatre crowd starts gossiping about the succession of? No, fuck off. 

Are you aware there’s a Norwegian punk band called Sverm who’ve done a song called I am Sir Nicholas Hytner? 

Long pause.
I have never come across it. 

It exists. 
With Lyrics in Norwegian or English? 

Difficult to say.  
Listen, I’m not going to say I have never Googled myself, I would have thought I’d have come across this. 

Finds it on Google.
Jesus Christ. 

We study the accompanying picture, of Hytner in a nice cardie.  
That’s a particularly vile picture. 

For some reason it won’t play in my phone so he searches for on it his. 
Who calls me Sir Nicholas Hytner? Nobody. I cannot believe I am putting in my own name into YouTube. ‘I am Sir Nicolas’… I’m not going to put in 'Hytner'. 

Finds it.
154 views. Who are the 154? 

We listen to the song, a grindingly atonal thrash.
Are they saying 'I am Sir Nicholas Hytner'? 

I honestly can't tell. 
I am completely thrilled, I could do without the Sir but I am completely thrilled. I am amazed. Thank you so much for that. Only 154 people have viewed it. Now 155 I guess. That’s amazing. The brilliant thing about being Sir Nicholas in our world is you can guarantee that whenever it’s used, it’s used sarcastically.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

WHAT I KNEW

I’m not really a big fan of making Serious Statements on social media/this blog as I can’t help but feel there’s something basically performative about it all – ie I don’t think the aftermath of a terrorist attack needs a hot take from me.

Nonetheless, I’ve seen a lot of stuff flying around theatre Twitter about the silence of the men re: recent revelations, and while I’m fairly sure they mean actual important men like Rufus Norris I might as well quickly write something.

First it hopefully goes without saying that I think all forms of abuse, coercion etc within the industry and without are utterly repellant.

Second I honestly don’t believe I have personally done anything that constitutes abuse, aggression, coercion, etcetera. Ultimately it’s not for me to say that, and god knows I have things to be embarrassed and ashamed of about in my life for other reasons, but I think I’m just going to leave it there.

That leaves what did I know? I really sincerely mean it when I say ‘not a lot’, and I’m probably less connected to the industry than people might expect. I read some gossip about Kevin Spacey on Popbitch and maybe a couple of people told me similar rumours. I guess it needs people to come forward to substantiate or deny; the rumours I’ve heard are pretty mild on the Weinstein scale; other people have heard worse, I think, but there's always the worry it's a malicious distortion against a very famous person who chooses not to discuss his sexuality (I read a popular internet thread about him with stuff in it that was patently untrue - clearly his extreme celebrity is a distraction of sorts).

Max Stafford-Clark - didn’t know, never met him, first I heard of it was that he seemed to fit the bill of one of the people Lucy Prebble described in her Weinstein essay. (UPDATE: for whatever reason somebody has sent me some more info on this confidentially and it’s pretty grim).

I have heard I think three more names in the last week, in two instances literally just names with no behaviour attached, one a little more and totally unacceptable, though probably the sort of thing more damaging to a marriage than a career.

As far as journalism goes, I’ve only really had two jobs and I’ve always worked in small offices, and the senior staff have been women most of the time. I never personally knew any powerful (or non powerful) figures in journalism or theatre who were abusing their power - but it’s worth saying that again I’ve met fewer of them than you’d expect (I worked at Metro regionally for four years and only met the editor when he made me redundant). The worst behaviour I’ve been aware of has been people who were nice (or at least okay) when sober who become horrible whilst drunk.

Speaking of which… Re: Andrew Haydon – pretty much anybody who knew him more than a few years back was aware that he had a drinking problem, and was not a nice drunk. I’m not saying being an alcoholic excuses anything, or that his tendency to pounce on people/institutions who fell below a moral threshold that he himself had crossed wasn’t hypocritical. But the impression I got (I’ve only met him a handful of times IRL and maybe only two of them while drinking, though there Are Stories) is that he was more a misanthrope than a misogynist whilst drunk (ie he was horrible to everyone) and ultimately it seems like he was ashamed enough of his behaviour to kick the booze. I don't know, it all seemed sad and self-sabotaging rather than sinister, but probably not if you're a 19-year-old woman he's saying horrible things to.

So really this has been a boring note saying ‘I didn’t do anything or know anything’ which feels dangerously like self-justification and makes me worry that this is really just a big ego trip. But there it is.

If there’s anything you want to discuss with me from a confidential professional perspective or whatever you can get me on lukowski@gmail.com. Realistically, Time Out is not the place you’re going to go to for a big industry exposé - so possibly that’s a good reason to talk something through with me before committing to talking to a proper journalist, I dunno.

Anyway, maybe this has been useful, maybe this is a box ticking exercise, I can always delete it or rewrite it or whatever. It feels like now seems to be a good moment to say your piece generally, hopefully more people will do so.

Monday, 2 October 2017

KWAME KWEI-ARMAH


I interviewed Kwame Kwei-Armah this year in order to put together a speech/testimonial for the the vice chancellor of University of the Arts London to read out when presenting him with an honourary degree earlier this summer. It's a bit cheeseball and to be honest I have no idea if this is exactly what was read out (I submitted the copy; they paid me; there was no feedback), but I thought I might as well bung it online in light of his taking over at the Young Vic as I don't believe it was ever made publicly available in any form.

The term ‘Renaissance man’ is a terrible cliché, but it’s hard to think of a better one to describe Kwame Kwei-Armah, who at one point in the last decade found himself simultaneously starring in BBC1’s Casualty, winning multiple awards for his debut play at the National Theatre, studying for an MA in screenwriting at the London College of Printing AND participating in that year’s Comic Relief Does Fame Academy (he came third).

Born Ian Roberts, Kwame’s formative years were defined by the incredible hard work of his mother – who worked three jobs to send him to stage school – and a growing interest in his roots and black identity, first sparked by watching Alex Haley’s landmark television drama Roots at the age of 13. Aged 19, having traced his ancestry to West Africa, he decided to change his name to one taken from the Ghanaian Asante dialect. ‘It was not a difficult transition for me,’ he says, ‘I felt a great sense of relief. Some people called me Ian for years after that, but I didn’t do it for them, I did it for me and for my children’.

His twenties were spent as a jobbing actor and musician and a new father, and they laid the foundation for his thirties, when his career took off spectacularly. He landed his most famous acting role, that of paramedic Finlay ‘Finn’ Newton in Casualty, which he starred in for five happy years, between 1999 and 2004. His first play, A Bitter Herb, based on the Southall riots he’d witnessed as a child, attracted considerable acclaim. But it was 2003’s Elmina’s Kitchen – an epic drama set in a West Indian restaurant on Hackney’s Murder Mile – that really cemented his name as a major playwright. After selling out at the National, it was only the second play by a black writer to hit the West End: a pretty woeful statistic that has barely improved since, though Kwame’s own One Love: The Bob Marley Musical is set to follow it soon.

If that doesn’t sound like enough work, he also did an MA in screenwriting at UAL’s College of Printing. He describes it as ‘one of the pivotal things in my life; what the course did was give me a toolkit for when success arrived, so I could write multiple projects at the same time’, though if he’s starting to sound sickeningly perfect to you then don’t worry – he freely admits he almost got booted off in the first year after he decided to turn in a completely different assignment to the one he’d actually been asked for: ‘I don’t know if they use the word expelled anymore, but I was nearly asked not to come back. I think the lesson is that if you’re going to break the rules, you need to understand the rules.’

He didn’t get expelled off: in fact, not only did he graduate, but a few years later he was invited back as a governor and then not so long after that he accepted the role of UAL Chancellor – ‘that came out of the blue,’ he says, ‘what an honour. That has to rank as one of the big ones.’

And that wasn’t all: Kwame was not a man to be confined to our little island, and in 2011 he accepted the job of artistic director of Baltimore’s Center Stage theatre, having pretty much bowed out of acting himself: ‘at my very best, I was good’, he says, ‘now every day I work with actors who are brilliant, and that’s on a bad day. And on my best, when I’m directing, I can be better than good. I had so much pride, being at that ceremony and shaking the young students by the hand – it was so inspiring’.

With an important role in American theatre, a West End transfer, a new Ibsen production at the Donmar Warehouse and some exciting film projects to come, Kwame’s future is looking as exciting as his past. But for today, we’re just happy to welcome back one of our own.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

I WENT TO MINSK FOR ABOUT A DAY AND NOW I THINK ALL YOUR THEATRE IS BOURGEOIS YEAH

Five nights a week, behind the door of an anonymous building in suburban Minsk that is supposed to be a garage, some theatre shows happen.

The shows are free, and announced on the afternoon of performance by WhatsApp message, with places – anything from 30 to 55 – allocated on a first-come, first-served basis to those who dial a burner phone manned by Nadia from Belarus Free Theatre, who jots the names down on a paper list.

Belarus Free Theatre are outlawed in their home country, though maybe it’s more complicated than that sounds to us. On an admittedly glancing first visit it would seem like a mistake to imagine Belarus as some sort of Stalinist throwback. Instead it is what it is: a poor Eastern European country with a democratic deficit and a heavy Russian influence.

Belarus Free Theatre were last clamped down on in March, and a couple of years back the KGB – they still have the actual KGB in Belarus – forced them to leave their previous headquarters-cum-performance space. None of this would be likely to happen in the West. But with founders Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Koliada exiled to London – Nikolai had to miss his father’s funeral because he doesn’t dare risk a return until he has obtained a British passport – and the company something of an international cause célèbre, it doesn’t feel like crushing Belarus Free Theatre is President Lukashenko’s actual number one priority. The company are pretty sure the KGB know they’re here, pretty sure the odd spook has come to see a show, and pretty sure they’ll be made to move on at some point. But not right now.

I have reviewed a couple of Belarus Free Theatre’s London shows and always found them a bit frustrating – spirited but dated agit prop designed to tell comfortable Western audiences about the bad things that are happening elsewhere. In Minsk both the shows and the context feel radically different.

For starters there is a genuine, undeniable, tacky thrill to opening a boring door and stepping into a sweaty, illicit theatre audience. Out here as a foreign observer to do a feature on a new London night Belarus Free Theatre is starting, there is clearly no actual danger to me. But to see theatre outside of a designated, government-sponsored building, staged on the most DIY of lines – a couple of portable lights and a projector operated by a woman on a precariously-balanced laptop – is pretty remarkable.

It reminds me – perhaps banally, but oh the thrill – of the best ATP chalet parties, makes me think how much the iconography of anti-establishmentarianism has been co-opted by music in the punk era and after. But was punk really anything more than one generation exercising its privilege to tell another generation to fuck off? Was rave really much more than hedonism? Were they causes of change or were they symptoms?

I don’t think there is a vast amount of counter-culture in Belarus, but this is definitely it: young people, queer people, disabled people, the inevitable vegans… they’re here because theatre is the thing most palpably pricking the system. Theatre, of all things! Imagine what most Western theatre writers would give to be able to say that. It’d be like after years of playing Dungeons & Dragons suddenly discovering you could actually summon a magic missile.

The first show I see, House No 5, is a darkly humorous series of skits about disability (made with a mix of disabled and able-bodied performers). It is a bit hit-and-miss (I follow along on a translated script). But it is the only real forum in the country for this stuff to get talked about. I think we fret a lot about diversity in the West precisely because we have a monolithic, well-funded, well-intentioned framework that is meant to allow every voice to be heard, and we rage that it doesn’t work as ought. But there is something immensely powerful in saying ‘fuck that, we’re going off grid’. It is easy for me to sit here and fantasise about British theatre makers who have a problems with British theatre might just up sticks and put radically different stuff on in an unlicensed shed somewhere. But it’s a thought.

The second show I see is The Master Had a Talking Sparrow. I suppose you’d call it immersive theatre: the garage is turned into a Belarusian living room in what I’m assuming is the late ‘70s/early ‘80s (Boney M play on the radio). We are gathered for a traditional meal, with heavy plates of smoked meats and boiled vegetables on the table, plus copious amounts of actual moonshine (it is perhaps one complication of Belarus Free Theatre that a free show in which the audience gets a full meal would surely not be possible without the outside funding they receive, though they’re hardly a western construct).

The show – based on a compendium of interviews conducted by journalist Zmitser Bartosik – is basically a reminiscence on civilian life in Belarus during the Second World War conducted over the dinner table. Though passions run high at times, there is barely any dramatic structure: the meal happens, people talk, we’re all a bit drunker by the end, but there’s no big revelation or sudden twist, and the whole thing is baggy enough to allow fairly robust interjection from the audience.

What’s radical is that the equivalent to this conversation – which might have happened word for word in the period it’s set – would be profoundly unlikely to happen today. That’s because the national discourse over the war has been studiously sculpted in present-day Belarus.

The atrocities committed by the Soviets during the first half of the war have been played down to almost nothing, because this is an increasingly awkward narrative. Earlier in the day I am taken to the Kurapaty woods, one the most haunting and horrible places I have ever been, a few acres of woodland just outside Minsk where the trees are intermingled with hundreds of wooden crosses marking the hundred thousand-plus people executed here by the Soviets. It is an official memorial, visited by President Clinton in 1994. But in the Putin era the government prefers to ignore it, and there are periodic attempts to tear down the crosses and desecrate the memorials. It is huge and stunning and significant, but it isn’t even in my guidebook, rather damningly.

There were also atrocities committed – on a smaller scale – by the Belarusian partisans who fought, among others, the Nazis, now venerated as an entirely heroic, patriotic movement.

And of course there were the Nazis themselves, who committed terrible atrocities – and these are the only ones the state really cares to remember.

The Master Had a Talking Sparrow is defined by its reasonableness – it’s a bunch of people chatting about what the war was like, and acknowledging that the partisans, in particular, did bad things too, in some cases because they’d been pushed over the edge by the occupations, in some cases because if you give a man a gun and say he can do what he likes, the first thing he’ll probably do is shoot his annoying neighbours.

In its reasonableness the show is a radical attempt to protect the past from revisionism as these events move out of living memory. It is a time capsule, and it has more genuine *purpose* to it than perhaps any other theatre show I have ever seen, and despite the interactive niceties, it is utterly untainted by the frivolity of plot – it has a mission and nothing gets in the way of it.

I think it affected me so much in part because I’ve been thinking recently about the British difficulty in coming to terms with ‘our’ own past (I obviously have another ‘our’ at least as problematic). One difficulty, maybe, is that rather than suppress the truth about what happened on our own soil, we outsourced most of our atrocities and are now content to view them as distant foreign events (though I believe there was suppression too).

I thought Tanika Gupta’s recent Lions and Tigers at the Globe did a pretty good job of explaining how Indians probably viewed the British in the pre-independence era and why it is that the British Empire was not universally beloved. But ultimately I thought it was a bit grounded in the conventions of being a play, all subplots and climaxes. But it does strike me that in the blah blah Brexit era British theatre maybe has a responsibility to talk about British past in a way that goes beyond a pieces of entertainment with a couple of painful truths tossed in. We know Amritsar happened - why don't we give a shit, really? It should be huge, 9/11 with us as the bad guys. Instead it's just ‘history’. Why do we persist in mythologising Winston Churchill but missing out the bad stuff? Can theatre fulfil the social function of keeping our unwanted past alive? Or do we shrug and hope somebody makes a hit film? (Mike Leigh's imminent Peterloo flick looks important).

Anyway. Context is everything. I was just a foreign journalist, invited out to write what were clearly expected to be positive things about the company. There couldn't really be a British equivalent to Belarus Free Theatre; undoubtedly many British theatres would be viewed as too radical for Minsk in their way. It is probably more important to have the right to free speech and not get it quite right than it is to not have the right but illegally get it correct to an audience of 30 (in a country of nine million). But so much of our theatre feels based on the idea that radical things are possible by sticking within the boundaries of a government-sponsored entertainment industry and perhaps tweaking the audience mix a little. And I wonder if that absolutely has to be the case.

NB this is clearly not the article I went out to write, about Belarus Free Theatre's Kitchen Revolution - that'll follow in October and be essentially London focussed with this as a backdrop. If you are a big money commissioning editor stunned by these words and would like them bashed into something less indulgent, we can talk. We can always talk.